Mixing Art and Environmental Science to Catalyze Social Change

by |May 10, 2019

This Q&A is part of an ongoing interview series on environmental justice by Meredith Smith and Rachel Kirk at Columbia’s Advanced Consortium on Cooperation, Conflict, and Complexity. The series explores how climate change and environmental challenges alter current and potential conflicts in the world.

Justin Brice Guarigilia

Justin Brice Guarigilia is an artist and environmental activist. Photo: Noah Kalina

Justin Brice Guariglia is an artist known for his large-scale photographic, sculptural and public works that address ecological issues. Guariglia is a former documentary photographer who worked with publications like The New York Times and National Geographic for nearly two decades. In 2015, Guariglia began flying on missions with NASA’s Operation IceBridge to gather source material for his art work. His landscape studies of melting glaciers, printed with acrylic onto panels of polystyrene, garnered critical attention for addressing the “Anthropocene sublime.” Guariglia has produced numerous public art projects that engage the public in the conversation of the vastness of climate change. His newest project, just unveiled in tandem with Earth Day at Somerset House in London, uses solar-powered LED highway message boards to deliver witty philosophical eco-haikus to get people thinking ecologically.

How do you see your work speaking to the environment?

I think we need to step back and ask, what role does art play in society today? Well, art’s role is to pose questions and challenge any existing philosophical, ethical, and moral judgements we might have. Art also needs to be relevant, and address current affairs. So when we speak about the ecological crisis today, art becomes this tremendously important tool that can broadly raise the public consciousness. Art gives us tools to open our minds to new possibilities and new perspectives that are imperative if we’re to address this urgent, existential issue.

Marshall McLuhan once said “Art, at its most significant, is a distant early warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it.”

How did you get first started working on environmental issues?

 I went to China in 1996 to study Chinese in Beijing and unbeknownst to me at the time, was thrown head first into the Anthropocene. [Anthropocene refers to a proposed geological era of human dominance over the environment, marked in 1950 by the first nuclear tests and the proliferation of plastic pollution that might outlast humanity itself.]

In the mid 90s, during the winter months in Beijing, you could walk outside for just 30 minutes and notice that when you blew your nose, the tissue would be black from all of the coal particulate floating in the air. It was eye-opening. I was there to study Chinese and learn about the culture, and in my free time, I developed an interest in the environment and art. I also started taking photographs for the first time.

outdoor art exhibit

WE ARE THE ASTEROID, a public art work by the artist Justin Brice Guariglia, on display at Storm King Art Center. The aphorisms that appear on this solar powered LED highway message board were written by eco philosopher and author of “Being Ecological” Timothy Morton. Photo courtesy of Justin Brice Guariglia Studio

Tell us about your piece, WE ARE THE ASTEROID, 2018, that was on display at Storm King Art Center last year.

 Several years back I began reading the eco-theorist and philosopher Timothy Morton, and started thinking, “Wow, these ideas really need to get out into the world and beyond the academic circles they are circulating in. Maybe I should try to work them as text into the art work I was making.” So I reached out to Morton and asked him if he would be willing to write some aphorisms for me. It was amazing — I got this long list from him, including “WE ARE THE ASTEROID”, “ TRIASSIC WEATHER AHEAD”, “THERE IS NO AWAY”, among many others. Then one day, while stopped in a traffic jam outside the Holland Tunnel there was one of those large highway signs on the side of the road that was glitching. There was something wrong with it; there was just nonsense coming up on the screen. It made me very focused and present for some reason, and I think it was because something was off and unexpected; it wasn’t saying what it was supposed to be saying. And I realized then and there that the machine was the perfect medium and metaphor for these ecological messages warning us about what was on the road ahead.

Image text: Timothy Morton; Photo: Justin Brice Guariglia Studio

“EFFICIENCY IS PETROSPEAK” — what does that mean?

Efficiency in solar panels, batteries, and transportation systems is extremely important, but this aphorism refers to the neoliberal use of the term “efficiency” — maximize the ratio of energy-in to energy-out, produce more with less, and continue to grow. When corporations say “we need to be more efficient,” what they’re trying to do is maximize profit — how do we get people to consume more? I use this aphorism to question: are we merely retweeting a great myth that places efficiency in the neoliberal sense, and almost always coupled with “growth”, ahead of a liveable future?

black and white artwork

ARTIC OCEAN I illustrates sea ice as seen from the stratosphere. Photo courtesy of Justin Brice Guariglia Studio

Tell us about your works on panels that were also presented at Storm King’s Indicators: Artists on Climate Change show. Are they landscapes?

 These are topographics depicting mining and agriculture in the landscape. They are based on aerial landscape photographs I’ve taken, and printed in the studio. I took the photos from 40,000 feet in the air — much higher than the series I did when flying with NASA, which was at 1,500 feet. The series was inspired by the Kanō school in Japan, which is famous for painting landscapes onto gold and silver leafed surfaces; it’s a school of painting that lasted for over 700 years. In my case, instead of applying paint by hand onto the surface, I’m printing the landscapes using a UV acrylic inkjet printer that I’ve adapted to become my paintbrush for this project. The process takes about six months to make one work from start to finish as we make it all by hand in the studio. It’s rather labor intensive and involves traditional oil gilding, the building of countless layers of gesso, and then hand leafing the metals. The finished work is more in conversation with painting than photography, and rather abstract and metaphorical, depicting how humans are impacting and changing the planet.

white artwork on wall

JAKOBSHAVN I. Photo courtesy Justin Brice Guariglia Studio

In JAKOBSHAVN I , what you’re seeing is glacial melange, the remnants of ice that have calved off the glacier on its way out to the ocean. This image is from the Jakobshavn Glacier in Greenland. A few years back Klaus Jacobs from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory came by my studio and explained to me how Jakobshavn was this incredibly important “galloping glacier” that was dumping 38 billion tonnes of ice into the ocean in the course of the year.

Why do you print these on polystyrene?

These works are steeped in this Marshall McLuhan-ian notion that “the medium is the message.” Here, the material is the message. This material is fossil fuel derived — it’ll last forever, a million years plus — it will outlive the glaciers depicted on its surface. They put polystyrene in the foundation of the World Trade Center for a reason. This material is more stable than concrete. Secondly, you see this work and you think, oh, it’s carved, it is three-dimensional. The image plays with your eyes, and your perception. The philosopher Kant used to talk about phenomena and noumena. Noumena, the thing in and of itself, and then phenomena, your perception of that thing. There’s a gap between what you see, and your perception of what you are seeing. It’s a gap or blindspot in our understanding — we don’t really understand what’s really happening around us, and I wanted to make that very transparent with this work because it correlates with our ecological crisis today.

So, climate change is complex and hard to grasp but are there things we can know?

Climate change is very complex and contains many unknown unknowns, but there are many knowable components, too.

If you are an Inuit, a climate scientist, or a farmer, you have a front row seat. If you live in a city, you are for the most part disconnected from the meaningful changes taking place across the natural world. My studio is in Brooklyn, so unfortunately I fall into that later category, despite spending years reading up on climate change and ecological collapse, while also collaborating with climate scientists.

For my work, I have found that the best way to really understand the changes taking place is to go out into the field, first-hand, to see and experience what’s happening. Yet still, I’m human, and see everything through an anthropocentric point of view — I’m not a monarch butterfly, a yellow fin tuna, or a Yangtze giant softshell turtle (which sadly just went extinct last week) —  so it’s hard for me to have any insight or perspective beyond my simple human perspective, but I think it’s becoming extremely important that we begin to consider the non-human perspective.

One thing worth pointing out is that art, for many decades, has been about individual expression, but today we are addressing social and political issues that are bigger than us, and cannot be solved on a personal, individual level. The ecological crisis requires a collective response, so I’m exploring this in much of my work today, hence my collaborations with scientists, philosophers, and writers. In my recent show at Somerset House in London this past spring, I brought together a multitude of voices from the front lines of climate change, platforming international activists, poets and philosophers in the hopes of using their voices as a catalyst for social and political change.

led signs with philosophical messages

REDUCE SPEED NOW! exhibit at Somerset House in London in celebration of Earth Day 2019. Photo: John Nguyen/PA Wire

If you could recommend one book for readers interested in these issues, what would it be?

 Hyperobjects, by Timothy Morton. It will help put into words many of the things you might be seeing and feeling but have little to no vocabulary for. It’s a seminal book that introduces this notion that we are surrounded by objects that live in temporal and spatial scales that are non-human — objects that are so massively distributed in space and time that we cannot even begin to truly understand them.

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